Visiting the Home of the Monkey King
by Gregory Brundage
In the arithmetic of the universe, 129,600 years makes one cycle and each cycle can be divided into 12 phases. Looking for our own place in the vastness of this cosmology, one can find in the classic and immortal Chinese novel, Journey to the West, that living beings were created at the end of phase two and beginning of phase three: "The essence of the sky came down and the essence of earth went up. Heaven and earth intermingled and all creatures were born" - hopefully putting an end to all debate regarding the creation controversy once and for all.
The world at that time was divided into four great continents: the Eastern Continent of Superior Body, the Western Continent of Cattle-gift, the Southern Body of Jambu and the Northern Continent of Kuru. The hero of Journey to the West is a stone monkey that sprang forth from a gigantic magical stone egg located atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit on the Eastern Continent of Superior Body in a country called Aolai next to an ocean. According to the story, there were no trees around this stone egg to give it shade, but magic mushrooms and orchids cling to its sides and ever since creation it has been receiving the truth of heaven, the beauty of earth, as well as the essence of the sun and splendor of the moon. Then one inauspicious day the wind blew and it turned into, yes, a stone monkey, and when his eyes moved, two beams of golden light shot upward to the Pole Star Palace and startled the Supreme Heavenly Sage, the Greatly Compassionate Jade Emperor of the Azure Vault of Heaven, who could only say, "There is nothing remarkable about him," proving perhaps that unexpected things could happen even to the Supreme Heavenly Sage, the Greatly Compassionate Jade Emperor of the Azure Vault of Heaven Himself. To make a long story short, a very naughty but lovable monkey he was, until he wreaked havoc in the heavens one too many times and found himself locked in a stone box under the Five Elements Mountain for five hundred years. At last he was released by the Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin - everything she does is magic! - and set to the task of accompanying the priest Xuanzang (along with two other companions and a dragon that had been turned into a horse) on a journey to the west - India, actually. Their mission was to bring back sacred Buddhist texts, the Teachings of the Greater Vehicle to be precise, for the Emperor to enlighten the people.
At this point the reader might be wondering, "What exactly does this have to do with Kung Fu?"
Well, gentle reader, this magical stone monkey was a master of a myriad martial arts, the learning of which began on Spirit Heart Mountain, Cave of the Setting Moon and the Three Stars. And in this most remarkable of all stories, Sun Wu Kong made magnificent battle with the gods at first, and after his terrible punishment and subsequent recruitment to his seemingly impossible mission, he heroically defeated nearly innumerable monsters and other loathsome creatures, repeatedly pulling his master and two other companions out of boiling hot water and the jaws of death (literally and figuratively) to complete his mission - and, incidentally, defray the terrible headaches that occurred when he angered his master with his silly and sometimes murderous naughtiness.
A few times during the story, Sun Wu Kong returned home to the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers, and this past October when Beijing was getting just a little too cool, I, your intrepid martial arts reporter - at loose in China - suddenly felt an irrationally urgent and irresistible need to visit there too. So I somersaulted up to a cloud with the help of a China Airlines jet along with my trusty companion/translator Miow, and in a jiffy we found ourselves at Lian Yungang in Southeast China, near the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers. This birthplace of the legendary stone monkey Sun Wu Kong turned out to be vividly vibrating with the entire pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas described in the novel, which shouldn't have been surprising, but for some illogical reason it was. After parking our bags at a magnificent hotel overlooking the beach and a good night's sleep (aided by a fatuously delicious seafood dinner eaten on the veranda overlooking the shiny path of moonlight sparkling on the placid waters where the Yellow Sea mixes with the East China Sea), we set off on another remarkable quest.
To enter the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, one must first pass through a time/space portal complete with towers, arched stone doorways and even a huge likeness of Sun Wu Kong's loveable mug - in stone, of course. Though some lazy people might like to take the bus to the top, this writer has never found a mountain he didn't like to climb, so he set off on the three-hour adventure-filled upward trek, stopping at lovely outdoor food places along the way to sample the local cuisine and take the time to admire the wildly diverse plethora of trees, flowers and fruits along the way, proving the adage that it's not where you go in life that counts, but rather how you get there.
At the top of the mountain we went to the temple and paid homage to various local deities as all good travelers should, and at the apex of that fair and ancient temple gave more than a passing nod to the likeness of the great monkey himself, who needless to say attained the ultimate transcendent enlightenment at the end of his wondrously mind-boggling quest.
Passing through that, it was time to visit the Water Curtain Cave where the legendary Monkey King lived with his friends. This of course involved passing through a water curtain, which was refreshing on that warm afternoon after a long climb. The cave was as described in the book, huge with a tunnel going through the mountain to the other side. One could almost see Sun Wu Kong and his monkey friends dancing and partying away in its labyrinthine vastness.
All too soon we had come full circle and returned to the hotel to sleep early and deep.
Nature revealed and mind made clear,
we had visited the home of Sun Wu Kong;
The way to the top was precious and dear,
We'd found ourselves a sparkling new home.
Actions complete and all achieved,
There was little to do but go to the beach.
The classic Journey to the West is a treasure beyond measure. Like Shakespeare's works, Journey to the West is probably an amalgam of theatrical works that evolved over the centuries following a real journey to India by a Chinese Buddhist monk named Zuanzhang, also called Dharma Master Sanzang, who died in 664. In the 13th century a book was published (of which only two tattered copies remain) that is clearly an ancestor of the more recent Journey to the West story. From the 14th century, a somewhat more complete performance script for this story was found, originating from Hangzhou. The present-day version of Journey to the West was probably compiled and written sometime in the middle or late 16th century. Though it is generally believed by most scholars that Wu Cheng'en was the writer, others assert he was more of a collector and editor, though clearly at least a couple of chapters were absent from earlier versions. In any case, its brilliantly colorful humor, profound insights into the finest details of human personality and behaviors, dazzling martial exploits and cohesive themes and direction make it one of the greatest classics of all time. It is the story of transformation from simple ego and other desire-driven motivations to higher-order transcendence. No doubt there is a little (or a lot) of the Stone Monkey King - Sun Wu Kong - in all of us. This story is definitely relevant to all martial arts adherents who wish to find answers to some of the deeper mysteries of life. What's remarkable is that these deep meanings are transmitted in such a lighthearted way, making it an enjoyable read for people in and of all ages, thus qualifying it as a truly immortal classic of literature. Finally, W.J.F. Jenner's translation is my favorite, though there are other versions as well.
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About Gregory Brundage:
As a boy going to schools in different countries, Gregory Brundage had to fight a lot. At age 12 he started judo, and after that wushu. Since then he's fought in more than 300 martial arts tournaments. He's worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from farming and construction work to university lecturer. He is currently a teacher in Beijing.